Of Dead Bodies and Dirty Streets

In the fall of 1924, five bodies from New Jersey were delivered to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. You might not expect that to cause the chief medical examiner to worry about the dirt blowing in city streets. But it did.

To understand why you need to know the story of those five dead men, or at least the story of their exposure to a then mysterious industrial poison.

The five men worked at the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey. All of them spent their days in what plant employees nicknamed “the loony gas building”, a tidy brick structure where workers seemed to sicken as they handled a new gasoline additive. The additive’s technical name was tetraethyl lead or, in industrial shorthand, TEL.  It was developed by researchers at General Motors as an anti-knock formula.

But, as I wrote in a previous post, men working at the plant quickly gave it the “loony gas” tag because anyone who spent much time inside showed signs of mental deterioration, from stumbling memory loss to sudden twitchy bursts of rage.  In October of 1924, workers in the TEL building began collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital; five of them died.

The problem, at that point, was that no one knew exactly why. Oh, they knew – or should have known – that tetraethyl lead was dangerous. As Charles Norris, chief medical examiner for New York City pointed out, the compound had been banned in Europe for years due to its toxic nature. But while U.S. corporations hurried TEL into production in the 1920s, they did not hurry to understand its medical or environmental effects.

Thomas Midgley, Jr. in the Laboratory: damninteresting.com

Two years earlier, the U.S. Public Health Service had asked Thomas Midgley, Jr. – the developer of the leaded gasoline process –   all research into the health consequences of tetraethyl lead (TEL).

Midgley, a scientist at General Motors,  replied then that no such research existed. Two years later, he could gave the same answer. Although GM and Standard Oil had formed a joint company to manufacture leaded gasoline – the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation – its research had focused solely on improving the TEL formulas. The companies preferred to avoid the lead issue. They’d deliberately left the word out of their new company name to avoid its negative image.

In response to the worker health crisis at the Bayway plant, Standard Oil suggested that the problem might simply be overwork.  Unimpressed, the state of New Jersey ordered a halt to TEL production. And then the compound was so poorly understood,  state health officials asked the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office  to find out what had happened.

In 1924, New York had the best forensic toxicology department in the country; in fact, it had one of the few such programs period. The chief chemist was a dark, cigar-smoking, perfectionist named Alexander Gettler, a famously dogged researcher who would sit up late at night designing both experiments and apparatus as needed.

It took Gettler three obsessively focused weeks to figure out how much tetraethyl lead the Standard Oil workers had absorbed before they became ill, or crazy, or dead. “This is one of the most difficult of many difficult investigations of the kind which have been carried on at this laboratory,”  Norris said, when releasing the results. “This was the first work of its kind, as far as I know. Dr. Gettler had not only to do the work but to invent a considerable part of the method of doing it.”

Working with the first four bodies, then checking his results against the body of the last worker killed, who had died screaming in a straitjacket, Gettler discovered that TEL and its lead byproducts formed a recognizable distribution, concentrated in the lungs, the brain, and the bones. The highest levels were in the lungs suggesting that most of the poison had been inhaled; later tests showed that the types of masks used by  Standard Oil did not filter out the lead in TEL vapors.

Rubber gloves did protect the hands but if TEL splattered and made any direct with skin, it absorbed alarmingly quickly. The result was intense poisoning with lead, a potent neurotoxin. The loony gas symptoms were, in fact, classic heavy lead toxicity.

After Norris released his office’s report on tetraethyl lead, New York City banned its sale, and the sale of “any preparation containing lead or other deleterious substances” as an additive to gasoline. So did New Jersey. So did the city of Philadelphia.

Afraid that the trend would accelerate, that they would be forced to find another anti-knock compound, as well as losing considerable money, the manufacturing companies demanded that the federal government take over the investigation and develop its own regulations.

The manufacturers agreed to suspend TEL production and distribution until a federal investigation was completed. In May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, to be followed by the formation of an investigative task force to study the problem. That same year, Midgley published his first health analysis of TEL, which acknowledged just a minor health risk: “compared with other chemical industries it is neither grave nor inescapable.”

It was obvious in advance that the federal task force was going to reach that same conclusion. The panel only included selected industry scientists like Midgely. It had no place for Alexander Gettler or Charles Norris or, in fact, anyone from any city where sales of the gas had been banned, or any agency involved in the producing that first critical analysis of tetraethyl lead.

In January 1926, the public health service released its report which concluded that  there was “no danger” posed by adding the compound to gasoline…”no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers were well protected during the manufacturing process.

The task force focused on the risks associated with every day exposure by drivers, automobile attendants, gas station operators, and found that it was minimal. It was true that lead had turned up in dusty corners of garages and that all the drivers tested showed trace amounts of lead in their blood. But a low level of lead could be tolerated, the scientists concluded. After all,  none of the test subjects showed the extreme behaviors and breakdowns associated with places like the looney gas building. And the worker problem could be handled with some protective gear.

There were critics, even then, insisting that this was a biased panel, too deliberately underestimating the risks, too willing to introduce lead into the environment. There was one cautionary note, though.  The federal panel warned that exposure levels would probably rise as more people took to the roads.  Perhaps, at a later point, the scientists suggested, the research should be taken up again. It was always possible that leaded gasoline might “constitute a menace to the general public after prolonged use or other conditions not foreseen at this time.”

But, of course, that would be another generation’s problem. In 1926, citing evidence from the TEL report, the federal government revoked all bans on production and sale of leaded gasoline. The reaction of industry was jubilant; one Standard Oil spokesman likened the compound to a “gift of God,” so great was its potential to improve automobile performance.

In New York City,  at least,  Charles Norris decided to prepare for the health and environmental problems to come. He suggested that the department scientists do a base-line measurement of lead levels in the dirt and debris blowing across city streets. People died, he pointed out to his staff; and everyone knew that heavy metals like lead tended to accumulate. The resulting comparison of street dirt in 1924 and 1934 found a 50 percent increase in lead levels – a warning, an indicator of damage to come, if anyone had been paying attention.

It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive. By that time, according to some estimates, so much lead had been deposited into soils, streets, building surfaces, that an estimated 68 million children would register toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease. As lead affects cognitive function, some neuroscientists also suggested that chronic lead exposure resulted in a measurable drop in  IQ scores during the leaded gas era.

Or, if you prefer, our long – and preventable –  loony gas era.

The second of a two part blog series on the early history of leaded gasoline. I discovered this while researching The Poisoner’s Handbook and I’ve always considered it a fascinating and troubling part of our forgotten chemical history.

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29 Responses to Of Dead Bodies and Dirty Streets

  1. Mutant Dragon says:

    Interesting. It may be a little naive of me, but I have to say it’s a little shocking the research on the risks was ignored, even in a pro-business climate like the one prevailing during the 1920s.

  2. Deborah Blum says:

    Yes, when I was doing the research I was startled to find out how much they knew back then about the dangers of leaded gasoline – occupational and environmental. And how resistant they were to consumer/environmental protection. The more things change….I came across this story while researching The Poisoner’s Handbook and then I did more research for the blog. For instance, I hadn’t realized until recently that they’d actually started looking at lead contamination in streets in the 1920s. Incredible, really, that all that knowledge was there. But that’s my favorite thing about writing about science history is that it peels away those kind of layers.

  3. Hank Roberts says:

    Thanks for covering this.

    I wish I hadn’t thrown out all the old copies of Scientific American (or maybe National Geographic) from the late 1950s and 1960s. I definitely recall full page advertising picturing the edge of a paved highway and grass growing alongside, illustrating the claim that the lead from vehicle exhaust would all end up deposited within a few feet of the highway so couldn’t do any harm.

  4. Hank Roberts says:

    PS: recommended — part of the history of how public health issues get raised, and yet get ‘forgotten’ over and over:

    American Journal of Public Health, Vol 90, Issue 1 36-46, Copyright © 2000 by American Public Health Association

    “Cater to the children”: the role of the lead industry in a public health tragedy, 1900-1955

    G Markowitz and D Rosner
    Department of History, John Jay College and Graduate Center, City University of New York, New York, USA.

    “A major source of childhood lead poisoning, still a serious problem in the United States, is paint. The dangers of lead were known even in the 19th century, and the particular dangers to children were documented in the English-language literature as early as 1904. During the first decades of the 20th century, many other countries banned or restricted the use of lead paint for interior painting. Despite this knowledge, the lead industry in the United States did nothing to discourage the use of lead paint on interior walls and woodwork. In fact, beginning in the 1920s, the Lead Industries Association and its members conducted an intensive campaign to promote the use of paint containing white lead, even targeting children in their advertising. It was not until the 1950s that the industry, under increasing pressure, adopted a voluntary standard limiting the amount of lead in interior paints. ”


  5. Deborah Blum says:

    This is a fantastic citation, thanks so much. It would make a great follow up piece to the TEL posts I just did. And it is also another reminder of some of the shameful ways that toxic chemicals have been promoted without full understanding or with deliberate disregard for their risks. Lead is one of the worst, really. Even today we’re remarkably careless with it. I did a slightly poetic post earlier on this, The Hour of Lead, http://blogs.plos.org/speakeasyscience/2010/09/27/the-hour-of-lead/

  6. Deborah Blum says:

    I once saw a great advertising poster about how tetraethyl lead made the world more beautiful. Kid you not – it had leaping dolphins on it. I saw it in an antique store and I’ve kicked myself ever since for not buying it.

  7. Pingback: The costs of lead poisoning | Environmental, Health and Safety News

  8. Kiki says:

    A story like this 60 years from now on vaccines!

  9. ottoschnaut says:

    Dr. Herbert Needleman was “wakefielded” by the industries that profited from the lead in gas, lead in paint folks. His research was debunked and his personal integrity was attacked. Only luck and his tenacity saved him from becoming another “discredited” scientist, trying to cash in somehow by producing phonied up research suggesting that lead could be harmful to children in minscule amounts. His account of the vicious, slanderous, unrelenting attacks against him were published in Pediatrics under the title “Into The Crucible.” http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/90/6/977?related-urls=yes&legid=pediatrics;90/6/977

    Compare and contrast the Needleman experience to what happened to Wakefield when he presented in a thoroughly peer reviewed journal a retrospective case study of how his group treated the sick kids they saw at Royal Free with gut disease and in some cases autism.

    Wakefield was supervised by Professor Walker-Smith (“the Father of Peditaric Gastroenterology”), holder of two Chairs and editor for five years of Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, and a doctor who had blanket ethical clearance at Royal Free.

    Interesting to note that Walker-Smith and Wakefield are both vilified for doing exactly what Needlman did.

  10. JupiterIsBig says:

    ottoschnaut – then I guess the moral to your story is that if you’re going to take on “the Establishment”, then it helps if your method is valid, your data is correct and your theory is reasonable to start with.
    Actually the theory of MMR causing Autism may have been reasonable but it needs to be changed when the data doesn’t back it up.
    Personally I (as a father of an ASD child) think that there are many other environmental and maybe social factors which are much more likely to be involved in autism.

  11. neutron_tamper says:

    Thanks for the awesome, yet sad story of TEL.

  12. Lucy says:

    An article like this in 60 years about the deaths and damage caused by pseudo-scientific scare campaigns on vaccines.

  13. Pingback: Of Dead Bodies and Dirty Streets | Speakeasy Science | Mark Solock Blog

  14. RobM1981 says:

    Excuse me, but the title of this article is not the same as the link that brought me here. The link that brought me here was titles “how leaded gasoline poisoned America.”

    This article barely touches that topic, and certainly doesn’t make the case for it.

    Lead is a poison, this is most certainly true, and I’m glad that it’s no longer used in gasoline. TEL definitely poisoned most people who came in direct contact with it, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be pumping gas in the 1950’s and 60’s.

    But the long term effects of TEL across all of America are barely mentioned in this article. Where is the science? Where is the data?

    “Lead was found in the corners of garages” is hardly actionable.

    TEL hasn’t been used anywhere for 25 years now. Other than an interesting historical story, what is the point that is being made here?

  15. Deborah Blum says:

    Well, of course, heavy metals are interesting poisons because they stay in the environment so long. Lead is a great example of this and, in fact, leaded gasolines have not disappeared world-wide at quite the rate you suggest. Have you seen the very recent findings of spices from India contaminated with lead due to gasoline-related deposition?

    But you’re right that this particular post just focuses on a moment in time. And the reason for dwelling on that moment is because most people don’t realize that there was so much concern about TEL in the 1920s, that there was very good evidence for its toxicity, and that the federal government and U.S. industry worked together to dismiss all of those concerns, laying the foundation for some 60 years of use in this country that did, as you suggest, lead to lead poisoning problems throughout the country. That issue has been well-documented for years – my post was only to highlight the forgotten origin of the problem.

    Hope this helps.

  16. Mitty says:

    Does this help explain the counterculture revolution of the 1960s?

  17. Robert Bridges says:

    No doubt that TEL was a nasty additive. But TEL did serve a purpose in both increasing the octane of gasoline and “lubricating” the cylinder heads gaskets and valves. My question is what would the consequences had been if we did not have TEL during the 1920-1985 timeframe? Especially during WWII when it was needed to make aviation gasoline. Without TEL, both gasoline and aviation fuel production would have been quite a bit less. Was there an alternative additive at the time? What would have happened to economic growth, and the impact on people’s lives?

    Also, I believe it took time for materials science to develop harder metals to eliminate the problems with valves and cyclinders.

    Thanks for the interesting article!

  18. Laura says:

    As a person who has owned/worked around antique cars (pre-WWII) and in museums containing many objects having lead-based paints, I thoroughly enjoyed this article. Anyone who has picked up a book on the Roman empire knows of the potential hazards of direct contact with lead, but I must admit complete ignorance of the pervasive problem of lead in our country (even in the blowing dust? I had no idea!)

    Thank you so much for taking time to include sources. Always appreciated.

  19. Stephanie King says:

    Fascinating and disturbing.

  20. Deborah Blum says:

    You raise some very good questions – and you’re right that TEL did serve a real purpose in automobiles and that airplane engines still rely on leaded fuel to run properly. I don’t know all the alternatives being considered at the time but I do know that Ford was working on a line of automobiles that would run on ethanol-based rather than fossil fuels. That program was shut down during Prohibition because the U.S. government feared that bootleggers would siphon off the ethanol and resell it to speakeasies and other customers.

  21. Lee says:

    Another aspect not referenced is the possible link to the reduction in violent crime by the removal of lead from gasoline.


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  23. Bill says:

    I worked as a chemical engineer at Ethyl Corporation in 1979-80. A that time my supervisor, a man of about 50 yrs old, would say that it was really a shame that lead had been banned because TEL was such an effective and economical additive, and lead was a benign substance (“it’s even required for body metabolism …”).

  24. Austin Paulnack says:

    Several years ago, I read an account of how the Ethyl Corp. succeeded in getting the U.S. government approval to continue to use lead as an anti-knock additive to gasoline, even though there were alternate anti-knock additives that did NOT include lead. Perhaps somebody can research further on Ethyl Corp. and its
    competition at the time for anti-knock additives.

  25. Thalia Helikon says:

    @Lee, I’ve been looking for that Amherst paper for several years. I found it online, thought it was interesting, but did not bookmark properly. Thank you!

    White lead make-up by samurai and geisha– very interesting correlation! Many immigrant cultures in the US persist in using medicinal or cosmetic pastes on baby’s face, which pastes have lead percentages in the whole numbers.

    And in regards to TEL, clearly we cannot allow industry to police themselves. They’ve acted against public interest even when the government was involved!

  26. Barry R Wilson says:

    During WWII favorite targets of the RAF ,RCAF and the USAF were fuel storage and refineries that caused a huge shortage of fuel and TEL German engineers were up to the task and substituted ethanol in their fuel as an oxygenate all during the war . Pure ethanol has an octane rating of 118 and replaced TEL very well ! The oil industry has a monopoly on fuel sales and is making lots of money selling 100 low lead aeroplane fuel world wide to continue poisoning the air and water because they don’t control the price of ethanol ! That low lead term is a joke on the environmentalists , the lead content is only low compared to previous aeroplane fuels , it’s five or six times what used to be used in car fuel The industry can make cleaner and better fuel with the use of ethanol which was a fuel one hundred or so years before the discovery of petroleum oil and gasoline .

  27. muzahid says:

    It is very hard to describe The matter of revolution of the 1960s. I am also searched answer of this question. But the poison problem are increasing day by day. But i can ensure you that in 1960s was very much concern about TEL. But the TEL was nasty additive.

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  29. website says:

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